July 25, 2012

AT HER PEAK: Ballerina Cynthia Gregory, shown here as Odile, the black swan in “Swan Lake,” during her career with American Ballet Theatre.

In a classroom at the Princeton Dance and Theatre Studio in Forrestal Village, six young men take their places and wait for music from the ballet Raymonda to begin. Sitting in front of them with her back to the mirror is a woman who was dancing “Raymonda” — and just about every other ballet in the classical repertory — before they were born.

Watching Cynthia Gregory demonstrate how to use a plié, or deep knee bend, to add spring to a jump, or how to open the arms into a more authoritative pose, it seems as if she might have performed these movements yesterday. Yet it has been two decades since this famous ballerina retired from dancing after a stellar, 26-year career with American Ballet Theatre (ABT).

These days, Ms. Gregory spends much of her time coaching younger generations of dancers. For the past several years, she has traveled to Princeton from her home in Las Vegas to Princeton Dance and Theatre Studio’s annual Summer Intensive. For one week, she works with the students on the finer points of performance. The 48 students in this year’s program come from several states and Guatemala. In addition to Ms. Gregory, they studied this summer with former ballerinas Susan Jaffe and Kyra Nichols; and with Roy Kaiser, who is artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet. The students will give an end-of-term performance Friday, July 27, at 1 p.m. at The Hun School Auditorium. Tickets are $10.

“I like to coach, rather than teach. There are so many better teachers than me,” Ms. Gregory says. “I like to work on the art of dance rather than the nuts and bolts. And they already know what they’re doing when I get here, so I can work on the finer points with them. The students here are very strong. There are no watered-down versions of anything. They’re learning the real thing.”

For Risa Kaplowitz, co-founder of the school, hosting Ms. Gregory each summer is a thrill for the students, and for her. “This is Cynthia’s fourth or fifth time at PDT, and I am still in awe of what she offers the students,” she says. “Her coaching is filled with positive energy and her simple explanations for difficult steps can make such a big difference in how a dancer executes them. Most of all, she gives the variations context and inspires the students to dance them with joy.”

A much younger-looking 66, Ms. Gregory has a warm smile and open manner that seem to put the dancers immediately at ease. She is quick to offer encouragement while pushing her charges to work harder and reach for a level that transcends technique and athleticism.

“The level of technique today is fabulous. It’s amazing,” she says, speaking of ABT, where she spent her career. “But the general feeling is more bravura than drama. Somehow, the heart is gone. We didn’t have that level of technique, but we had something else. I try to pass along what I learned from people like Agnes de Mille, whom I loved. She taught me how to be a real person on stage. I tell the dancers today to be real with their gestures, to be themselves. That translates to the audience.”

De Mille is only one of the renowned choreographers with whom Ms. Gregory worked during her long career. Born in Los Angeles, she began studying ballet as a small child. She managed to get herself into a class that George Balanchine was teaching when she was only 13. The great choreographer and co-founder of the New York City Ballet was impressed and invited her to come study in New York, but she was too young.

A year later, though, she was accepted into the San Francisco Ballet as an apprentice. Her parents sold their home and business and the family moved to San Francisco, where Ms. Gregory thrived. She stayed with the ballet company for four-and-a-half years before deciding to make the move to New York. Since Mr. Balanchine had encouraged her, she expected to join his company, where abstract ballets tend to dominate the repertory.

“But I saw a performance by ABT, and I set my heart on that,” she says. “It was drama. I like to tell a story, and that’s what they were doing. It’s not that I don’t love the Balanchine repertory; I do. But the story ballets suited me best.”

ABT had Giselle and La Sylphide in its repertory when Ms. Gregory joined. Over the years, more full-length classics and ballets by Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, and other choreographers were added. “I just fell in love with all of those ballets. They kept adding more, every year or two,” Ms. Gregory says. “I could really immerse myself in the roles.”

While drama was her forte, Ms. Gregory was also a formidable technician. She was known for her ability to balance en pointe longer than just about any other dancer, and her fans loved her for it.

She especially enjoyed working with Mr. Robbins, performing his ballet Other Dances with Alexander Godunov and Kevin McKenzie, now ABT’s artistic director. “He showed another side of me,” she says of the choreographer. “A lot of people never thought of me in that way.” Mr. Robbins was her favorite choreographer. But he was a tough taskmaster. “He made you do things over and over, and I get worse as I do things over and over,” she says. “Twyla [Tharp] was like that, too.”

Ms. Gregory exited ABT during the period that Mikhail Baryshnikov was artistic director. The Russian superstar favored younger dancers. Only in her mid-thirties, which is considered a dancer’s prime, Ms. Gregory chose to bow out. “I didn’t thrive under him, so I started doing guest performances,” she says, tactfully. “I did get to dance with him once, in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, and that was great. But I needed to move on.”

When Ms. Gregory ended her dancing career a few years later, she was ready. “I don’t miss it,” she says. “I was really completely fulfilled.”

She has been divorced twice and widowed once. Ms. Gregory raised her son, now 24, in Greenwich, Connecticut. She moved a few years ago to Las Vegas, where she is an artistic advisor with the Nevada Ballet Theatre. She coaches for that company and elsewhere.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” she says, flashing her radiant smile. “I had no major injuries. I got to  work with the most amazing choreographers in the world. And now I get to pass it on.”

July 12, 2012

MARITAL MANIPULATIONS: Manningham (Evan Thompson) subtly deceives his wife (Sarah Paton) into thinking she is going insane, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Patrick Hamilton’s “Gaslight” (1938), playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through July 15.

A creative work whose title becomes a part of the common cultural vocabulary must strike a resonant chord in our social and psychological worlds, and the indomitable Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) polished, intelligent production of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 Gaslight presents a vibrant case in point. Our society has recently been struggling to come to terms with the complex psychological ramifications and destructive effects of bullying. “Gaslighting” — a power play which involves manipulating the victim into doubting his or her memory and perceptions — is certainly one of the most insidious forms of that kind of psychological abuse. Unsurprisingly, despite a certain quaint predictability and Victorian-style domestic familiarity, this classic melodrama maintains its power to engage and intrigue audiences almost 75 years after its original production.

Most famous is its 1944 movie version directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten and an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury in her screen debut, Gaslight, set in London in the 1880s, is the story of a villainous husband and his calculating emotional and psychological torture of his wife, as he drives her to the brink of insanity.

Under the guise of the most caring and kindly paternalism in this traditional Victorian upper-middle class household, he deceives her into believing that she is misplacing valuable objects, neglecting her responsibilities as dutiful wife, and gradually losing her mind in forgetfulness. One of his ruses that make his wife question her senses and sanity is his clandestine raising and lowering of the gas lamps that give the play its title and light the couple’s Victorian living room. The Victorian world and male-dominated marriages of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) come to mind, as does the victimized wife consigned to a 1860s mental institution in Emily Mann’s Mrs. Packard (2007).

The PST cast of five principals, all undergraduates or recent college graduates, under the direction of Princeton English and theater professor R.N. Sandberg, is excellent — credible and engaging in making significant character stretches to portray this curious assemblage of characters from a distant world.

In the central Ingrid Bergman role of the beleaguered wife Bella, Sarah Paton is convincing and sympathetic. She portrays a fluctuating fragility that shifts rapidly and credibly from happiness in response to her husband’s feigned affections to desperation and manic hysteria in the face of her fears and desperation in confronting what she is led to believe is her declining mental state. This overly dependent, neurotic stereotype of a Victorian wife is certainly a ripe subject for feminist scrutiny, as is her misogynist husband, though suspense and melodrama are Mr. Hamilton’s priorities rather than social commentary here.

Evan Thompson as Jack Manningham takes on the villain’s role with spirit and poise. His proud posture, thinly veiled insincerity, roguish demeanor, sexist commentary, and inappropriately suggestive overtures to the maid (Ariel Sibert) lucidly reveal his duplicity to the audience, if not to his wife, early on in the play. The audience, realizing Jack’s machinations, then identifying with Bella as she first spirals into distress and fear, then gradually begins to realize her husband’s treachery, enjoy watching as husband and wife match wits in mortal combat.

Ms. Sibert’s impertinent Nancy exudes the brazen spirit and style of the saucy, lascivious maid, and Jack’s flirtations with her become part of his psychological abuse of his wife, as the two women compete for his attentions.

As the elderly house servant Elizabeth, Maeve Brady makes an impressive stretch in age and creates a memorable character, watching closely the suspicious actions of her master and the alarming behavior of her mistress and helping in the end to resolve the tangled plot. Andrew Massey’s avuncular, witty, and determined detective contributes irony and dark humor to the proceedings, eventually winning Bella’s trust and allegiance in opposing the treacherous husband and sorting out his complex schemes and actions. Mr. Massey creates a quirky, believable, and likeable three-dimensional character.

Jeffrey Van Velsor, professional local set designer, in collaboration with talented lighting designer Alex Mannix, has successfully created the Manningham’s living room and this ponderous world of Victorian domestic life. In sharp, welcome contrast to the multiple settings of the 1944 movie version, the audience here stays focused in the single, darkly paneled, increasingly claustrophobic room. As the plot develops throughout the evening, the single setting intensifies the suspense and fear that the audience shares with the panicked Bella. “Gaslight” sconces on the wall further enhance the atmosphere and admirably serve the plot.

Mr. Sandberg has directed with skill and careful attention to detail. The action, even the rather long first-act exposition and set-up, moves swiftly, drawing the audience into this eerie world of intrigue and drama. The performers are well rehearsed and communicate the complexities of this tale with clarity and conviction. Ben Schaffer’s expert technical direction and period costuming by Julia Bumke and Ms. Sibert are also on-target and effective.

In commenting on Gaslight, Mr. Hamilton, who wrote several popular psychological dramas and novels in the first half of the twentieth century, once remarked, “It has a sort of genuineness in its very bogusness — it is sincere good fun theater.” Princeton Summer Theater makes the most here of Mr. Hamilton’s fascination with a rich psychological struggle and his fine sensitivity to the playwright’s art of keeping audiences on the edges of their seats.

May 16, 2012

PLAYWRIGHT IN DISTRESS: Stranded with two abandoned children (Hope Springer, left, and Matthew Kuenne) in a strange house and a hostile environment, Mundie (Paul Gross) tries to make progress on his new screenplay in the world premiere of John Guare’s “Are You There, McPhee?” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 3. (Photo by Michal Daniel)

At a New York City party the guests are telling stories in the opening scene of John Guare’s new play Are You There, McPhee? at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Edmund “Mundie” Gowery, a playwright, urges the group to gather round for his “horror story” of abandoned children, a dead mother, a porn ring, at least two sea monsters (11-pound lobsters) and Walt Disney. Mundie’s story, which he both narrates and re-lives, takes him from the present back to 1975, summer of “Jaws” (blockbuster movie and book), as he, at the age of 35, becomes embroiled in a tangled series of troubling, life-defining incidents — alternately absurd, horrific, and romantic — on the island of Nantucket.

In addition to the above, this two-and-three-quarter-hour surrealistic comedy includes dozens of different characters, all played by a versatile cast of 12; a slew of movie allusions and children’s literature references; repeated appearances by marionettes depicting the Argentine writer Borges, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, and Mundie himself; a diamond-stuffed lobster; a heart literally turning to gold; movie deals with Disney and Roman Polanski; a living room in the style of a Magritte painting, with a train coming out of the fireplace; literary references to Herman Melville, Samuel Beckett, Dr. Seuss, Primo Levi, and others; and frequent visitors from the past dredged up from Mundie’s creative memory.

This much plotting and literary, cinematic, artistic, and dramatic material can become daunting for audiences struggling just to keep track of what’s going on. The humor is clever, surprising and richly absurd. The distinguished cast is excellent, led by the dynamic, humorous, and appealing Paul Gross (Due South, Slings and Arrows) as Mundie. The talented Sam Buntrock (Travesties at McCarter last month and a widely acclaimed production of Sunday in the Park with George in London in 2006 and on Broadway in 2008) directs with imagination and finesse, teaming up brilliantly again with set and costume designer David Farley (Travesties, Sunday in the Park).

Present here are qualities that have established Mr. Guare (House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation) as one of the great American playwrights of the past 40 years: wildly imaginative plotting, detailed and sympathetic characterizations, hilarious comedy, striking and moving portrayals of deeply flawed men and women trying to make human connections, besieged in a forbidding environment. But Are You There, McPhee? needs an editor. Two-thirds of the current plot, fewer characters, and a running time much closer to two than three hours would suffice. The audience could catch its breath, take time to enjoy the humor rather than struggling constantly to follow the plot, and establish the kind of close ties with the main character that would draw us in to care more about his amusing, moving, sometimes ridiculous plight.

As Mundie’s story begins, the characters from his past appear and the layers of dark complexity accumulate. Lighting by Ken Billington and set shifts assist in transporting Mundie and the audience back to 1975. Mundie, who owns a Nantucket rental house he has never seen, receives an alarming phone call from the Nantucket police. They have arrested his tenants for running a child pornography ring. With Mundie’s first love interest departing for Buenos Aires with her husband, Mundie’s lawyer, and his second girlfriend demanding Mundie’s presence at a social event that evening, Mundie plans to fly to Nantucket for the day.

The literary background develops. Mundie reads Borges stories on the plane, and the famous writer appears in the form of a life-sized puppet to offer words of wisdom. Everybody else seems to be reading Jaws or going to the movie, as ominous “Jaws” sound effects complement the action here. Mundie’s Nantucket house had once been the home of a famous author of the “Elsie and Wally” books for children.

Soon after arriving in Nantucket, Mundie undergoes a police interrogation concerning his criminal tenants, and finds that everyone he meets recently acted in a local amateur production of his play, Internal Structure of Stars. They are all still furious that Mundie declined an invitation to attend a performance, but more than ready to offer dramatic samplings of their best lines.

Somehow Mundie encounters a lobster fisherman named McPhee. Some sort of alter ego for Mundie, he also had a part in the play, has a married girlfriend with the same name as Mundie’s and is also reading Borges. McPhee bestows upon him a large trash can and a cooler containing two huge lobsters.

And somehow McPhee directs Mundie to a house where Peter and Wendy are housesitting and taking care of a young boy, Poe, and girl, Lilac, and that’s where the plot really gets going, as we gradually find out details about the children’s mother, the daughter of the writer who lived in the house Mundie now owns, and the father, who directed Mundie’s play and aspires to greater achievements in Hollywood.

Mundie finds out he has a deadline to write a screenplay for Roman Polanski and looks forward to a rapid departure back to New York, but suddenly finds himself responsible for the two mischievous children who seem to have been abandoned by their parents and by Peter and Wendy.

This is just the first half, and this description barely scratches the surface. Is this Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw updated, in double time and on steroids? Much of the dialogue and action is very funny, and the excellent cast plays a colorful and entertaining array of characters: John Behlmann (McPhee), Gideon Banner (Peter), Jeremy Bobb (the lawyer), Molly Camp (Wendy), Patrick Carroll (the cop), Alicia Goranson (Mundie’s girlfriend), Matthew Kuenne and Hope Springer (the children), Jenn Lynn (daughter of the famous children’s book author), Danny Mastrogiorgio (the children’s father), and Luisa Strus (the children’s aunt) — all except for Mr. Gross’ Mundie and the children, taking on multiple additional challenging roles.

Just before intermission, after more than an hour and a half of intense exposition and plotting, Mundie looks up at the audience and tells us: “You need a break.” Despite the superb production and the wealth of great comedic and dramatic material, he’s right. Less would be more.

April 25, 2012
Theater Rev

“THIS IS JUST A TEST”: (left to right) Archie (Chris Doubet), Jamie (Catherine Cohen), Ted (Adam Stasiw), Melanie (Julia Phillips), and Chris (Jordan Adelson), with the proctor (Jake Robertson) in the background, endure the horrors of the SAT test, just one of the many ordeals they undergo in “Admissions: The Musical,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 28.

Admissions: The Musical

“Please somebody out there. Won’t you let us in?” Anybody who has participated recently in the college admissions rat race or who looks forward to that experience in the near future or who can remember college admissions traumas of long ago can relate to Admissions: The Musical, written, directed and performed by Princeton University undergraduates.

The college adviser interview, the application essay (“500 words or less”), the SAT tests, the strained relationships and shattered dreams of high school senior year, the alumni interview and the long-awaited decision letter — all come under the scrutiny of this often funny, sharply satiric, sometimes poignant musical comedy.

Sporadically brilliant, tuneful, and entertaining throughout, Admissions is the creation of experienced Princeton Triangle Show writers Dan Abromowitz, Clayton Raithel, and Nora Sullivan, with skillful, focused, purposeful direction by J.T. Glaze. A collaborative effort of Theatre Intime and the Princeton University Players, the show features a cast of five principals plus five versatile ensemble members, a pit orchestra of four under the direction of Kevin Laskey, and eleven different musical numbers in two acts spanning two hours, including an intermission.

The music — mostly rock or ballad numbers, with a traditional musical comedy quality — is appealing throughout, as the lyrics range from the mundane to the highly clever and witty. The tone of the show also ranges widely, from outrageously campy and absurd to serious, sentimental, and moving. The evening is enjoyable, and the accomplishments of these talented writers, performers, and producers are admirable — uneven but admirable.

From the first guidance counselor college meeting to the fateful opening of the college decision letter, the plot spans most of a year at Salmon P. Chase High School for five seniors: Ted (Adam Stasiw), Melanie (Julia Phillips), Jamie (Catherine Cohen), Chris (Jordan Adelson) and Archie (Chris Doubet). From “Senior year’s going to be amazing,” to “All joy has been crushed out of me,” this group lives through the ups and downs of the college application and admission process.

Chris, an athlete, and Jamie, an academic star, have been a couple since freshmen year. They can’t imagine being apart, and the fact that Chris will never get into the colleges Jamie is applying to brings their lives to a crisis point. Mr. Adelson and Ms. Cohen develop this relationship with intensity, credibility and humor, as the two teenagers struggle to stay together against the odds. They blend vocal strength with on-target characterizations in a couple of duets, “The Future Is Ours” in the first act (reprised with a twist in the second act) and “Reasons to Stay” in the second act.

Melanie, a singer and stressed-out music conservatory applicant, is suffering the pressures of preparing for auditions. Ms. Phillips’ Melanie, putting her life on hold, is sympathetic in her attempts to understand herself and her dreams in the face of the travails of college admissions. She sings a memorable counterpoint duet “Pass You By,” (“Don’t Let the Year Pass You By”) with Ted early in the evening, then comes to an epiphany near the end of the evening in a strong solo piece where she realizes, “That was my dream, but now it’s not.”

Mr. Stasiw’s Ted provides first-rate vocal skills, a charismatic presence, and a healthy contrasting perspective to the group, as he opts out of the admissions competition and decides to work and travel after high school.

The most tortured character of all, Archie is from a University of Pennsylvania family, but he doesn’t get in. As the first act ends, Mr. Doubet’s Archie tries to convince himself that “I’m Okay,” but with parents like his (Alexis Kleinman and Adam Mastroianni), hilariously over-the-top caricatures of the obsessive mother and father, his road to college will not be smooth.

In addition to the over-bearing parents, Mr. Mastroianni and Ms. Kleinman, along with Jake Robertson, Amy Solomon, and Chris Murphy take on a number of colorful roles, from guidance counselors, teachers, and high school students, to admissions officers and alumni interviewers. Mr. Mastroianni, Ms. Solomon, and Mr. Murphy even don the appropriate wigs and costumes to appear as Beethoven, Mozart, and Georges Bizet to participate in one of Melanie’s tortured dreams.

The ensemble is well rehearsed and directed, switching seamlessly among a variety of roles, and providing consistently focused, high-energy support for the five principals. Of the five leads, Mr. Stasiw and Mr. Adelson stand out in displaying vocal and dramatic talents as they create their vivid convincing characters.

Alex Pimentel’s flexible unit set, with blue and green blocks of various sizes on the main part of the stage and the four-piece orchestra pit above at upstage center, works efficiently and effectively in staging the numerous rapidly-moving scenes of the show in the close quarters of the Intime performance area. Stage right serves as Archie’s family dining room, and the far stage left area provides the forum for a series of humorous monologue parodies in which students deliver reflective personal excerpts from their college application essays.

Expert lighting by Alex Kasdin uses a rich variety of colors on the cyclorama wall to vary the mood and deftly delineates the shifts in scene and tone throughout the show.

The pit orchestra is excellent, and Mr. Glaze has directed the show with a sure hand, staging the action smoothly and clearly, balancing orchestra and voices and keeping the pace moving throughout the many different scenes from start to finish. Diction and projection are less than perfect, with lines, either sung or spoken, occasionally not clear. Choreography by Mr. Glaze and Alison Goldblatt is generally unremarkable, but complements the proceedings successfully.

As the 2012 college admissions extravaganza winds down, acceptance and rejection letters have been opened and final choices have been made or are imminent; College Admissions: the Musical offers a refreshingly light-hearted perspective on the whole ordeal. The satire is delightfully trenchant, the humor is mostly sharp and on target, the music is pleasing, and the PUP/Theatre Intime premiere production provides an enjoyable evening.

“Admissions” will run for one more weekend, April 26-28, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursday and Saturday and at 8 and 11:59 p.m. on Friday, April 27. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.princeton.edu/utickets for information.

April 4, 2012

WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?: Amanda (Maeli Goren) and Elyot (Evan Thompson) are back together again after marriage, divorce, rekindled relationship, and so many skirmishes in between, in Theatre Intime’s production of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” at the Murray Dodge Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 7.

Love, marriage, divorce, remarriage, and repeat — Noel Coward’s 1930 masterpiece of witty repartee and stylish, high society British humor, seems a long way removed from life in the 21st century, but Private Lives, playing in an accomplished Theatre Intime production, retains its wise perspectives on the necessity and impossibility of love and its power to entertain contemporary audiences.

It’s the story of Elyot (Evan Thompson) and Amanda (Maeli Goren), who, after being divorced for five years, find themselves honeymooning with new spouses in adjoining rooms in the same French hotel. The first of three acts takes place on the hotel terrace, as the surprised Elyot and Amanda gradually discover each other’s presence, and quickly realize that they can’t live without each other. They decide to leave their new partners and escape to Paris. Victor (Tadesh Inagaki) and Sybil (Bits Sola), the abandoned spouses, join forces and follow Elyot and Amanda to Paris, where the tumultuously romantic rollercoaster ride of the last two acts ensues in Amanda’s apartment.

Shockingly risqué in its time, the plot, despite the cleverness and rich ironies of the opening scene, is paper thin, and the four main characters, though mostly realistic, are barely three-dimensional, with no backgrounds, employment, family, or interests outside the necessities of the romantic plot. But the central relationship is fascinatingly, frustratingly paradoxical in its volatility, its lust, its abuses — both physical and psychological — and its impossible inevitability.

“I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives,” Amanda tells her confused new husband in the first act. “It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various cosmic thingummys fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there’s no knowing what one mightn’t do. That was the trouble with Elyot and me, we were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle.”

This feast of Cowardian wit is full of froth, but all that witty badinage, the sharing of a certain flippancy, the refusal — in striking contrast to the sober attitudes of their more mundane counterparts — to take life too seriously, constitutes the essence of Elyot and Amanda’s relationship. This is the lost art of conversation, and — save Shakespeare, Shaw, Wilde, and maybe Tom Stoppard — no one is more artful in this rarefied realm than Noel Coward (Hay Fever, 1925, Blithe Spirit, 1941). Coward wrote Private Lives in four days, then went on to play the role of Elyot, with Gertrude Lawrence and Laurence Olivier, in subsequent successful London and New York runs in 1930-31. It has been revived in the West End and on Broadway many times since.

Mr. Thompson’s Elyot is suitably dashing, high-energy, and refined. He makes the ten-year character stretch with credibility and carries off the emotional requisites of the role — from suave sophistication to exasperation and hysteria to deep affection — with style and commitment.

Ms. Goren’s Amanda, “jagged with sophistication,” is a worthy counterpart, alternately alluring and attacking, romantic and rebellious. Both leads are thoroughly, convincingly in character, but suffer occasional diction lapses. The British-accented, rapid-fire wit occasionally speeds by too rapidly for comprehension, and it’s all too clever and entertaining to allow a single line to get lost.

Mr. Inagaki as the somewhat pompous, buttoned-up new husband to Amanda, and Ms. Sola as a whiny, needy young bride to Elyot are both excellent, on target in their characterizations, and clear and direct in word and action. They serve as effectively convincing, down-to-earth foils to the central duo. As Louise the French maid, Amy Gopinathan provides a timely, deftly humorous walk-on in the third act — a glimmer of perspective from the real world on these eccentric, upper-crust lovers.

Princeton University junior Savannah Hankinson has directed her young — all freshmen and sophomores — cast with intelligence and understanding. The action moves swiftly, with just one intermission, between acts one and two, and a short pause between acts two and three, and the total running time comes in at less than two hours. The staging, including some passionate brawling and physical combat to complement the verbal sparring, is clear and economical.

Michaela Karis’s simple, elegant, symmetrical set designs, enhanced by Laura Hildebrand’s nuanced lighting, effectively reflect the rarefied realm of the play. Sophie Brown’s costumes, a rich array of upscale outfits, including shimmering evening gowns for the ladies and formal wear for the gentlemen, enhance the creation of these characters and their world.

“Selfishness, cruelty, hatred, possessiveness, petty jealousy. All those qualities came out in us just because we loved each other,” Amanda reflects in act one, and she and Elyot agree, “To hell with love,” just before deciding to run off to begin the cycle again. Noel Coward’s Private Lives paints an intriguing portrait of these desperately loving, desperately tortured fools for love, along with some of the cleverest romantic repartee ever written, all brought to life in this fine Theatre Intime production.

March 21, 2012

Tom Stoppard’s Travesties opened in London in 1974, came to the United States and won both Tony and N.Y. Drama Critics Circle Awards for Best Play in 1976 and is currently at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre in a dazzling production directed by Sam Buntrock. It is a wildly extravagant intellectual feast.

“I want to marry the play of ideas to farce,” Mr. Stoppard explained. “Now that may be like eating steak tartare with chocolate sauce, but that’s the way it comes out. Everyone will have to decide for himself whether the seriousness is doomed or redeemed by the frivolity.”

It is Zurich in 1917, during the First World War, with Lenin preparing to return to Russia to lead the Russian revolution, James Joyce is in the process of writing Ulysses, and Dadaist Tristan Tzara is challenging the world of European art. The ideas come thick and fast here, though a constant barrage of puns, limericks, and word play, a smattering of song and dance and recurrent reminders of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest might, as Stoppard suggests, be smothering the seriousness of those ideas in chocolate sauce.

With so many historical, artistic, and literary allusions, this tour de force of hyperactive wit provides extraordinary riches for the mind. In this vein of Wildean farce and George Bernard Shaw’s comedies of manners and ideas, Mr. Stoppard has produced an impressive array of masterpieces over the past five decades, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1968) through The Real Thing(1982), Arcadia(1993), Coast of Utopia (2007) and many more. Nowhere, however, do the farce, allusions and intellectual ideas spin more wildly over the top than they do here in the pyrotechnics of Travesties.

Mr. Stoppard’s feat of relentless verbal dexterity, extraordinarily clever plotting to get Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara together through the reminiscences of a minor consular official, Henry Carr, who narrates the play, all in a spoof of The Importance of Being Earnest is surely a composition of genius. The McCarter production is worthy of this genius — also admirable, impressive and delightfully inventive in its staging and in the eight sterling, high-energy, high quality performances of its distinguished cast of eight.

Whether audiences will unreservedly enjoy this play is another question. Such rich fare can be overwhelming. A number of patrons left at intermission last Saturday night, slightly more than halfway through the three-hour show. The fast and furious pace of allusions, ideas, and farce are challenging to say the least. Theater-goers looking for traditional dramatic virtues of plot and depth of characterization will be disappointed. Some diners find both steak tartare and chocolate sauce, not to mention the combination, too much for the palate.

Travesties focuses on the character of Henry Carr (the redoubtable James Urbaniak), old man, sitting in his apartment, still in Zurich in 1974, and remembering, with questionable reliability, back to 1917: “Great days … Zurich during the war. Refugees, spies, exiles, painters, poets, writers, radicals of all kinds. I knew them all.”

The role is fabricated partly from history, partly from Mr. Stoppard’s fertile imagination. A Henry Carr did work as a consular official in Zurich and did in fact play the role of Algernon in a Zurich production of The Importance of Being Earnest produced by The English Players of which Joyce was the business manager at the time. He and Joyce did clash over money matters surrounding the production and their dispute did end up in court.

As Mr. Stoppard wrote in the program notes for the original production, Travesties is a work of fiction which makes use, and misuse, of history. Scenes which are self-evidently documentary mingle with others which are just as evidently fantastical. People who were hardly aware of each other’s existence are made to collide; real people and imaginary people are brought together without ceremony; and events which took place months, and even years, apart are presented as synchronous.”

Mr. Urbaniak embraces this character with panache, both the irascible, forgetful old man (“… you may or may not have noticed that I got my wires crossed a bit here and there, you know how it is when the old think-box gets stuck in a groove and before you know where you are you’ve jumped the points…”) and the urbane young swain.

He transitions seamlessly from the long monologues of an old man’s reminiscences (a la Krapp’s Last Tape) to the vibrant setting (a la The Importance of Being Earnest with an added dose of politics and aesthetics) of Zurich and Carr’s encounters — political, personal and romantic — with Joyce (Fred Arsenault), Tristan Tzara (Christian Coulson), Lenin (Demosthenes Chrysan), Lenin’s wife Nadya (Lusia Strus), Carr’s eccentric butler Bennett (Everett Quinton), his sister Gwendolyn (Susannah Flood) and a young librarian, Cecily (Sara Topham), whom he falls in love with and later marries.

Mr. Coulson’s Tzara, with scissors in hand as he cuts out his words to scramble his poetic creations, is a fascinating, credible figure, vehemently defending his radical aesthetic theories, as he simultaneously pursues his romantic and personal ends.

Mr. Arsenault’s James Joyce, working on Ulysses, described here by Tzara as “derived from reference to Homer and the Dublin telephone book of 1904,” brings this unusual literary figure and his avid limerick-making to vivid, memorable life.

Mr. Chrysan’s Lenin and Ms. Strus’s Nadya are both formidable, authoritative characterizations, seen from a certain distance here — Mr. Carr had little or no actual interaction with the Russian revolutionary. Their dialogue and his speeches are almost entirely taken from historical documents.

Ms. Flood’s Gwendolyn and Ms. Topham’s Cecily both perform admirably in their embracing of the wild (and Wilde) world of this play and in encountering, with flair and poise, the erratic male characters who surround them. Ms. Topham is particularly strong, articulate, and striking throughout, as librarian, Leninist, and romantic interest, then wife, to Carr.

The incomparable Everett Quinton contributes a delightfully bizarre performance as Carr’s edgy, class conscious butler Bennett.

Production values here are of extraordinarily high quality. David Farley’s breathtaking set creates the huge shelves, dark wood paneling, and even a winding staircase between levels of the realistic Zurich library, then transforms so swiftly and effectively to Henry Carr’s small apartment, with clear, specific distinctions between 1917 and 1974 versions.

Mr. Farley’s colorfully fashionable costumes, historically specific and expressive for the period and the particular characters, along with David Weiner’s dramatic, varied, and nuanced lighting, all provide firm grounding and clarification in the creation of the worlds of this play. The renowned David Shire has composed the appropriate, appealing music for the production.

Yes, some knowledge of Europe during World War I, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Joyce, Tzara, and artistic movements of the early twentieth century is helpful here; but this luminous, dynamic cast, each character aflame with his or her particular passion, and the lucid, imaginative, intelligent direction of Mr. Buntrock (director of an award-winning revival of Sunday in the Park with George in London and New York, 2005-2008, and Take Flight at McCarter two years ago) keep the whirling words and actions moving along on track and in focus. This superb production delivers Mr. Stoppard’s Travesties — jam-packed with word-play, literary allusions, and historical references — with a dazzlingly light touch that assures entertainment even when confusion might defy comprehension.

February 29, 2012

On a night when Hollywood was honoring its own with the Oscars telecast, The Princeton Singers paid homage to its own past, as well as Princeton history, with a concert of late 19th and early 20th-century British and American choral music. As part of its continuing collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum, The Princeton Singers invited its audience to sit in the chancel of the Princeton University Chapel for a concert of some of the greatest hits of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, complementing the Art Museum’s exhibit of Princeton and the Gothic Revival, 1870-1930.

Princeton Singers conductor Steven Sametz placed the 18-member vocal ensemble under the foot of the chancel, facing the high altar. With conductor and singers so close together, it was easy to keep control over the sound, and an intimate concert environment was created for the audience. Throughout the evening, the homophonic music of late 19th century England was well-blended and diction came through well.

Sunday night’s concert was subtitled “Vivat Regina!” and the singers cut right to the chase, opening with C. Hubert H. Parry’s I Was Glad, sung at every royal coronation since 1902 and heard most recently in royal context as the bride’s processional at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. This piece was designed to shake the rafters, with its top-volume organ registration and harmonic shifts, and the space of the University Chapel was a perfect venue for this lush music. The four-manual Aeolian Skinner Chapel organ also provided ample choices in registration and dynamics for this program. Parry created his setting for the traditional British choir of men and boys, whose laser sound would cut through Gothic walls and organ registration, but the Princeton Singers sopranos had an equally pure sound in the cozy setting.

All the works chosen for Sunday evening’s program showed a full clean sound with explicit diction. Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s Wash Me Thoroughly in particular was sung with a flowing choral tone. Penitent in its simplicity, the Wesley anthem demonstrated especially well-blended men’s sections while the sopranos topped off the sound like icing.

Dr. Sametz contrasted these chordal anthems with the more jarring style of Charles Ives to show how the British Anglican revival was assimilated into American music. Both “General Booth Enters into Heaven” and the closing Psalm 90 of Charles Ives were percussive in vocal style. For the General Booth anthem, Dr. Sametz moved the chorus outside of the chancel, leaving bass soloist William Walker close to the audience. It would have been easy to hear Mr. Walker from anywhere in the hall, and both choir and soloist conveyed the musical drama well, accompanied in the tricky piano part by Akiko Hosaki. Ives’s setting of Psalm 90 was smooth and sustained, punctuated by bells played by members of the Nassau Presbyterian Church’s Ringers. The Singers well maintained the long choral stream of this piece, while soloists tenor Peter De Mets and soprano Martha Ainsworth carried well in the space. Ms. Ainsworth was appropriately restrained in a complex vocal line which left little room for overly-Romantic singing. Dr. Sametz intermingled the choral pieces on the program with organ works played by Timothy Harrell. In both the Edward Elgar and Horatio Parker works, Mr. Harrell was able to take full advantage of the wide range of dynamics and registration available from the instrument.

Princeton Singers concerts are often mini-courses in music history, and Sunday night’s performance was no exception. The actual museum exhibit may have been nearby, but the gothic structure of the University Chapel provided plenty of atmosphere to transport the audience to an earlier era and give them some new musical insight to take home.

Have our cell phones transformed the nature and quality of our most important human relationships? Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone (2007) provides its audiences with an engaging, thought-provoking, consistently amusing, and frequently surprising experience exploring this, and other timely issues, at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus for one more weekend.

Intelligently and dynamically staged here with a poised six-member undergraduate ensemble under the sure-handed direction of Princeton University junior Daniel Rattner, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a dark romantic comedy — yes, definitely about cell phones and the problems with contemporary communication, but also about the larger peculiarities of this modern world and about no less than our struggle for fulfillment through connection with other human beings, in this world and the next.

Ms. Ruhl, emerging as a major new playwright of the twenty-first century (Eurydice in 2003, The Clean House in 2004, and In the Next Room in 2009, a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006 and twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), dexterously shuttles back and forth in her plays between the surreal and the mundane. Dead Man’s Cell Phone, with its twelve scenes in two acts, provides a steady stream of surprises — in characters’ words and actions, in plot, and in ideas.

As clever in her quirky insights into the eccentricities of human nature as she is poetic and inventive in her uses of language, Ms. Ruhl makes the most of the clever premise indicated in her title. The lights rise on a café. A man and a woman sit at tables on opposite sides of the stage, and after a silent minute — anguished on her part, frozen on his — the first of many cell phones rings is heard. The rings cease briefly, only to start up again, until the annoyed woman, Jean (Sarah Paton), asks the man, Gordon (Michael Pinsky), to answer his phone. He doesn’t move. He can’t, of course, because he’s dead, which she eventually realizes, after she has answered the phone. She is immediately swept into his complicated personal and professional lives.

Throughout the play, Jean feels compelled to hold onto the dead man’s phone, and she continues to answer calls. She attends Gordon’s funeral, meets his imperious mother (Savannah Hankinson), his mysterious Other Woman (Bits Sola), his eccentric widow Hermia (Annika Bennett), and his shy, sweet brother Dwight (Eric Traub).

From her initial exasperation at the annoyance of Gordon’s unanswered phone to an acute compassion and curious desire to connect with the dead man and his world, Jean finds herself taking responsibility for passing along, and creating, the meaning of Gordon’s life, his mysterious career and his most important relationships. This ambitious and daring undertaking sends Jean deep into the worlds of romance, international intrigue and family dysfunction in a series of wild scenes—from café to church to mom’s dinner party to bar to stationery store to Johannesburg airport to some semblance of the after-life (or it might be another planet).

As she continues on her quest to connect and make meaning out of the mystery and loneliness of her life, of Gordon’s life and the lives of his loved ones, she finds herself making up increasingly creative tales. “I call Jean’s stories confabulations, I never call them lies…,” Ms. Ruhl writes in her notes for the director.

Ms. Paton, as the frenetic, beleaguered, ultimately triumphant protagonist, undergoes a wide range of emotions and experiences during the course of the two-hour evening. She creates a sympathetic character, though less than credible at times in age (late 30s — an almost 20-year stretch for this actress) and in a dependence on the distraught look, the sighs and furrowed brow at the expense of a wider variety of reactions. It would have been helpful, and in keeping with the fanciful nature of the play to see Jean at times relaxing the distressed demeanor and enjoying more fully the power and creative challenges of her romantic, moral adventure.

As Gordon, Mr. Pinsky plays a convincing dead man in the opening scene, makes an astonishing entrance at the end of act one, returns in act two to tell us about his last day, and, with effective self-assurance and lack of affectation, delivers, to Jean and the audience, essential words for contemplation.

Ms. Hankinson as the formidable, doting mother creates a compelling presence and almost steals the show in creating an unforgettable character — albeit, as written, more of a two-dimensional caricature. Her funeral speech for her son, interrupted by a ringing cell phone, of course, is a tour de force, followed up expertly with classic matriarchal encounters, peppered with searing one-liners directed at Jean, her younger son and her daughter-in-law.

Ms. Bennett’s Hermia, Gordon’s widow, is another larger-than-life yet thoroughly believable character — fascinating and compelling in her eccentricity, manifested, for just one example, in her final decision, and final appearance in full regalia, to join the Ice Follies.

Mr. Traub as Dwight, a striking contrast to the more flamboyant characters surrounding him and a suitable match for the protagonist, and Ms. Sola as the enigmatic Other Woman provide first-rate support and interest to the play’s romantic and adventure plots.

The pacing occasionally drags here, as Jean wends her way towards love and fulfillment. “There is a great deal of silence and empty space in this play,” Ms. Ruhl describes, “but the pauses should not be epic.” The glimpses of yearning, loneliness, isolation — what Ms. Ruhl describes as frozen Edward Hopper (the painter) moments — are important, but this production could pick up the pace at times, both between and within scenes.

Mark Watter’s simple, flexible set,—single café tables stage right and stage left, simple platforms upstage and basic furniture brought on as necessary, serves the play well. Sean Drohan’s richly colorful lighting, with the backdrop transforming from fuchsia in the first scene to an array of different hues, ending in bright pink for the finale, contributes significantly to the creation of this surreal world.

“You know what’s funny?” Jean confides to Dwight near the end of the first act. “I never had a cell phone. I didn’t want to always be there, you know. Like if your phone is on you’re supposed to be there. Sometimes I like to disappear. But it’s like — when everyone has their cell phone on, no one is there. It’s like we’re all disappearing the more we’re there.” It’s not just a coincidence that the most meaningful relationship in the play takes place between two characters who meet in person, without any electronic communication, and who find love in a stationery store, triumphing over the intrusions of cell phones into their lives.